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February 18, 2019
Focus: Workplace technology

Virtual reality gains traction in sectors from architecture to hospice care

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Tim Mateosian, left, founded Big Room Studios with his brother Sam, right. The firm, which specializes in virtual reality projects, is based in 3,000 square feet at Thompson's Point in Portland.
Photo / Tim Greenway
The Mateosian brothers, Tim (left) and Sam, founders of Big Room Studios, which is based in 3,000 square feet at Thompson’s Point in Portland. They started in web design in 2002 and eventually branched into virtual and augmented reality projects.
Photo / Tim Greenway
Big Room Studios used virtual reality in a storytelling experiment for the nonprofit Island Institute.
Video Still / Courtesy of Big Room Studios
“Island Land” is a storytelling experiment that uses virtual reality to put the viewer inside a lobster trap.
Rendering / Courtesy of SMRT
SMRT’s still shot of a virtual reality view of the new WEX Inc. headquarters in Portland.
Video Still / Courtesy of Embodied Labs
Embodied Labs’ “Clay” puts views in the skin of a dying patient. This is a scene toward the end.
Photo / Tim Greenway
Daryl Cady, CEO of Hospice of Southern Maine, says virtual reality helps her staff better understand what patients are going through.

You slip on the virtual reality goggles and find yourself on a boat with a lobsterman, then below the surface inside a lobster trap with crustaceans snapping and clawing at you. After finding your way out of the trap, you click yourself onto safer ground.

Welcome to "Island Land," a virtual reality storytelling experiment created by Portland's Big Room Studios for the Island Institute, a Rockland nonprofit working to sustain Maine's island and remote coastal communities.

The story starts with an imaginary rendered island that serves as a gateway to a collection of videos, filmed with 360-degree cameras and other emerging spatial capture devices. Each puts the viewer in a three-dimensional environment that feels disconcertingly real, from the back of the trap with ferocious-looking lobsters and looking up out of the water to see the lobsterman reaching in.

"Your empathetic position switches and you're suddenly not against the lobsters, you're with them and are like hey, 'Don't mess with my buddies," says Sam Mateosian, co-founder of Big Room Studios with his older brother Tim. "That's the power of this particular medium, to give experiences like that."

Big Room Studios, based in a 3,000-square-foot office at Thompson's Point, started out in web design in 2002. The firm added custom software development in 2008 and that remains its bread and butter. More recently, it has branched out into virtual and augmented reality projects of varying scope.

"Island Land" has been a huge success, a portable story that can be viewed anywhere in the world, including U.S. Sen. Angus King's Washington office, where he has an Oculus Go headset.

Island Institute president Rob Snyder calls "Island Land" a powerful tool that gives viewers "an unprecedented experience of the places we work in, and the VR tool eliminates the narrator. It puts Mainers in charge of their own story."

Future tech

Big Room's other virtual reality projects include a visit with immigrants in Lewiston at home and in the mosque, and a project for the global exhibit and event marketing firm Czarnowski that features a fun play on its logo.

Both brothers are bullish on virtual reality's business prospects, both through Big Room Studios and their second, newer startup called Yarn. It's creating a platform called Driftspace that would allow anyone to create and share high-quality virtual reality experiences without having to code.

"The reason I got into web stuff in the first place is because it was cutting-edge 20 years ago," says Tim, 48, whose first computer was a $99 Timex Sinclair he got for Christmas in 1982 and today serves as CEO of Big Room Studios. "Virtual reality is future tech."

Sam, 39, who runs Yarn from San Francisco, adds: "We are premised on the idea that more companies, organizations and storytellers will want to take advantage of this medium, and we'll be well-positioned both as a toolmaker and as a high-end studio for content creation."

They're gearing up as the virtual and augmented reality market takes off worldwide, with spending on both technologies forecast by International Data Corp. to rise to $20 billion this year from $12.1 billion in 2018.

While consumer spending is mainly on games, commercial spending is gathering pace in the areas of training ($1.8 billion projected in 2019), online retail showcasing ($558 million) and industrial maintenance ($413 million). The IDC report shows that global spending on augmented and virtual reality products and services will remain strong over the next five years, as tech giants including Google, Apple and Microsoft duke it out in terms of developing hardware, software and content to meet growing demand.

From Kodachrome to smartphones

Though virtual reality's origins are disputed, the modern concept stems mainly from the gaming world. It's commonly understood to mean an interactive and immersive 100% digital experience within a simulated, three-dimensional environment as lifelike as if one were physically there, exploring a country from afar, the inside of the brain and even other planets.

Current technology most commonly uses special headsets with built-in screens, sometimes in combination with physical environments or props, to teleport the user into a simulated world that can be animated or video-realistic.

Though the level of detail and sophistication vary, there's often a hand-held game pad or other device users can press to move around in the projected reality, interact with people or objects and look in all directions with 360-degree panoramic vision — and can be far more intense than an Omnimax Theater show.

Today's goggles are a 21st-Century version of the View-Master toy stereoscope first introduced in 1939 for viewing pairs of transparent Kodachrome color photographs with a three-dimensional effect.

Using smart-phone technology and cardboard headsets, Google recently teamed up with Mattel Inc. to develop a mass-market virtual and augmented reality viewer that retails for less than $10 at Walmart. As the hardware becomes more accessible and the wireless technology advances, companies and organizations in various sectors are starting to use the technology in their daily work. In Maine, SMRT Architects and Engineers and Hospice of Southern Maine are using virtual reality in very different settings and applications.

High-tech architectural design

In designing the interior of WEX's soon-to-open $15 million waterfront headquarters, the SMRT team next door started with line drawings before moving to computer renderings and virtual reality that allowed for simulated visits along the way.

"The use of virtual reality was an invaluable process as it allowed us to experience the building 'live' during the early planning process" and make any changes that would have been more expensive at a later stage notes Safet Cobaj, WEX's head of global real estate. "Our CEO was also able to walk through the building virtually, which provided a higher level of comfort with a project of this magnitude."

A recent virtual reality demo at SMRT's office, set up by architectural drafters and in-house tech gurus Caleb Morton and Jack Haskell, backs that up. So far they've done training on the new tool for about 10 people at the firm, including architects Graham Vickers, the WEX interior architect and project manager and Nicole Rogers, who didn't work on the WEX project.

Though it took some getting used to, both regularly use virtual reality and are convinced of its usefulness in a fast-changing profession where paper sketches and scale models have largely given way to computer-aided design and other technology.

"Now instead of drawings, we do 3-D modeling, which virtual reality is a part of," says Vickers. "It's efficient, effective, and a little bit of a 'wow' factor."

That's especially true in a project's early stages, like one Rogers remembers that initially foresaw a two-story atrium. "When the client saw it in VR, they were like, 'This is huge,' so we changed the design and got rid of the atrium."

End-of-life care from the patient's perspective

At the Hospice of Southern Maine Gosnell Memorial House in Scarborough, staff are being trained on a virtual reality simulation developed last year by California's Embodied Labs Inc. based on what it observed at that facility.

The 30-minute module puts viewers in the skin of 66-year-old Clay Crowder through his journey from receiving a late-stage lung-cancer diagnosis to the end of his life surrounded by his family at home.

Broken into three sections, the narrative goes from receiving bad news in the doctor's office to Clay's deathbed where he's surrounded by family and imagines a heron spreading its wings before taking his last breath. Then the perspective shifts and the viewer sees Clay for the first and last time.

It's an emotional experience, moving some viewers to tears, designed to show caregivers what it's like to be a patient at the end of his or her life.

"Caregivers have a tremendous amount of empathy already, this just gives them the opportunity to see the entire experience," says Daryl Cady, Hospice of Southern Maine's CEO.

Despite initial doubts, she says it's been wonderful working with Embodied Labs on a useful new tool some staff members have already used more than once. "It's not a once-and-done," she says. "It can be a continual learning experience."

Hospice interfaith chaplain Angela Lutzenberger has a similar observation about what she calls a beautiful experience, saying, "I don't think I learned something new as much as it was an affirmation of what I do."

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